Tuesday, August 30, 2011

same as it ever was

Dear Wildfire,

I have to admit it, I'm still in love with you. I don't like what you've become: a massive, bloated machine that takes up over half the budget, but I still love you in your purest form, like yesterday, two lightning struck trees and some ground fire, the four of us with our pulaskis and bladder bags, no overhead, no teams, no media hype. I don't always agree with putting you out, because the forest here is starved for you. It needs you and we've denied it for so long, that dance of fire and forest, that delicate balance.

For years I chased you through the Everglades, the mountains, in Alaska's interior. Gradually things changed and I was no longer welcome as professional firefighter ranks swelled. It didn't matter that I knew you well, had seen you in many forms. I was sent to the sidelines because my job didn't begin with fire.

I missed you but I learned to live without you. I didn't need you as much once I found some mountains that I loved and a man with blue eyes whom I wanted to be with every moment. Life is short, memories are long, and I still watched lightning kiss the trees, remembering. I recalled hiking up endless hills gripping a pulaski, trying to close the gap between the firefighter in front of me. I remembered working my way up through sometimes hostile male ranks, swinging the lead pulaski, taking command of dozers and engines. Being with you was something I could do and I did it well.

I almost broke it off with you completely this year. There are so many young men who want it more than I do, and women too. I remembered a morning in Colorado when I found out that my friend had died at your hands. It didn't seem worth it, love and hate enterwined in a knot of pain impossible to unravel.

But just like a man you can't shake, I came back to you this week. Lightning pounded the forest and I hung around the dispatch board until I got my chance to see you again. There you were, creeping through the grass, chewing up the logs, just like always. The years melted away. I was thirty again, my mistakes still ahead of me, life a wonderful and unpredictable adventure. The guys were kind and let me take charge, though they didn't know of my long and colorful past with you. How could they? They've only seen me without you.

In the end I only got to play with you for two days. You winked out and were gone. I'm left the way I have been when lovers left me, heart in my throat, wondering how to go back to the ordinary. But I don't think we are done yet, Wildfire. We may only tango once a year, but we will never be completely through.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I'm not a mountain biker. Yes, I have a mountain bike. It's a Trek that used to belong to a rental fleet (Sitka Bike and Hike) that I acquired for $150 before I could ride a bike at all. (In case you haven't hung around this blog very long, I taught myself how to ride a bike last year. I was one of the Adults Who Never Learned to Ride a Bike, the few, the ashamed).

Anyway, I have worked my way up to 18 miles on dirt and gravel, but lurking out there is the mystical singletrack, you know, the kind you rode when you were eight. The granddaddy of them all is the Redmont trail, which I am clearly not ready for. But maybe, I thought, I was ready for the state park.

To real bike riders, this would be nothing, a well-packed trail with no obstacles, and mostly flat (I stayed off the steep stuff). To me, this was an exciting adventure into a world that had been closed to me for decades. Gingerly I rode along, admonishing J to stay far away. If you could have heard my thoughts, this is what you would have heard:

"Okay. Okay. I can do this. Gosh this is narrow. Uh-oh! Turn! Turn! TURN! Okay. Be calm. Around the pond. This is fun. AAAAAH Rocks! Narrow! Rocks! Gonna crash! Can't do it! Have to walk! Damn, J saw me walking. Oh well, he married me. Too late now, buddy! Okay. Get on the bike. Brake! Brake! All right. Here we go. Obstacle! Old guy fishing! Don't take him out! Okay. Safely past. Back on the more open part. Fun! Oops-Gate! Brake! Danger! Bail!"

If you think back to a time when you accomplished something you never thought you could, you will know how I felt once the tires hit pavement. Yes, it was short and somewhat pathetic. No, I'm not ready for Redmont. But I did it, I rode singletrack!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Switchbacks are for sissies, or the cure for mountain envy

I've seen the Seven Devils etched against the sky for two years from over on the Oregon side. I look towards Idaho and there they are, peaks sawtoothed against the sky, a green blur on a map, a mysterious place perched near the canyon rim. Finally I was able to go there.

We were continuing the mercury study and hiked into a semi-remote area to gather fish. I slogged up the unrelenting inclines, bent under the weight of my pack. We carried nets, paddles, water sample bottles, forms, and other mad scientist stuff.

The Devils are humbling. There is no easy cross country here, no little skips across passes to reach the other side, no flat terrain to be found. It is an angular place, no soft curves, instead basalt cliffs poking their faces to the sky. The trails scribble across the talus slope. This is no place for wimps.

As I hiked along, I wondered why I have this mountain envy. When I see a new mountain range I have to explore it. I can't just let it be.  I wonder how it relates to my twenty years of traveling, how I always looked at the unknown places on the map and wanted to dive in.

On our way up the pass to drop into Ruth Lake, the kind of trail that you plod along, head down, each step a victory, we passed the turn-off to Horse Heaven. I knew from an overflight that Horse Heaven is a sprawling alpine field, gloriously upturned to the sky. There's an old fire lookout there, perched on the canyon rim.

I stared longingly at the weatherbeaten sign. Only three miles! I can totally do it! But in the end, common sense (and our nine mile hike, up and over two 1000 foot passes) prevailed. It tugged at my heartstrings just a little to turn my back on the sign.

But that's what choosing to stay in one place, with one person, is all about, isn't it? You leave some trails unexplored, some rivers unrun. You learn one mountain range enough to love it through all seasons. You study the lines on one person's face, trace their known skin with your hands. You are home.

I have only skimmed the surface of the Devils. There is much more to see, and I may see it someday. I may go to Horse Heaven, lie cartwheeled under the big sky. But dropping over Big Sheep Hill to the valley I live in, I felt invisible arms encircle me and welcome me home.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Even freaks of nature get tired

My husband likes to call me a "freak of nature." He is, sweetly, mistaken: I am no faster than anyone else. In fact, my running times have become spectacularly slow. It takes me forever to pedal a bike or swim a half mile. I know real freaks of nature: women who run 50ks, 100 milers, Ironmans. I'm not them. What I do have is a strong dose of stubbornness that makes me keep going.

So it can go something like this: Backpack ten miles, set up camp, then day hike three miles over a big, formidable pass to visit an outfitter, then go three miles back? In one day? After a few days last week of combat backpacking over other formidable passes? Why not?

I admit, I have become smug about my hiking prowess this summer. After all I started in May chasing after contractors, climbing in and out of the canyon, gaining and losing 8,000 feet. Hiking is what running used to be; my feet know it, my body knows it. It's a dance we know.

"I'm impressed," I heard another hiker whisper to her companion as I passed. Chatting with them, they learned I had come from the trailhead that day, in contrast to their camp at Eight Mile. As I slogged through the white talus, I didn't feel so impressive. The heat pressed down like a hand, mocking my choice of carrying a down jacket and mittens after a frosty night at Swamp Lake last week. The trail climbed, and climbed.

Little Frazier Lake.

The pass itself was windless, a breath caught and held, still eighty degrees at seven at night. I felt unfamiliarly tired. On Day 2, a supposedly easy downclimb of ten miles, my pace plummeted to 2.5 miles an hour. Each landmark passed with excruciating slowness. Finally the trailhead appeared, none too soon.

J met me at the door with a box of ice cream sandwiches. I ate two. "How was it?" he asked.

"Um. It was a bit much to do for an overnight," I said.

He laughed. "You're a freak of nature," he said.

I was too tired to correct him.
llamas are cool.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

killing fields

The Copper Creek canyon is, I think, one of the prettiest places on earth. You have clear, green-tinged water:

Perfect bowls of snow, trees and wind..

Sun-splashed lakes...

Sherbet sunsets...

It was hard to reconcile all this beauty with what we were doing, which was killing. Killing in the name of science, and killing an introduced species but killing all the same.

I somehow managed to get through years in Alaska without ever killing a fish. I chowed down regularly on salmon and halibut, but I only dragged them up to the surface, never delivered the final blow. Hypocritical? Yes. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. Some people can pull the trigger. I'm not one of them. So these little brook trout were the first fish to die at my hands.

An unseen enemy may lurk beneath these placid waters--mercury. Borne into the wilderness, it accumulates in the flesh of fish and can spiral up through the food chain, wreaking havoc. The fish I killed will help determine if initial results are accurate. So it's important.

Still, I kind of hated to have their blood on my hands. Sappy? Hippie-ish, sentimentalist drivel? Perhaps. But I think that when you kill a creature, you should feel something besides elation. I believe in the work we are doing. But those fish stay with me. They will for a while yet.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I guess this (writing) dream's gone away

You may have noticed that the subtitle of this blog is "writing and wilderness." I don't write about writing all that much mostly because I blog about it here: http://www.cheekteethblog.com/ and also because lately my writing fairy seems to have skipped away. My novel languishes at 65,000 words; my next one is only five pages in. My sarcastic attempt at a romance novel, "Love in Xtra Tufs", is only an idea. Contest deadlines flit by; I haven't written for High Country News in months.

When I graduated proudly with an English degree I was positive I was going to be a Famous Writer. So what happened?

Wilderness happened. I fell in love with mountains, rivers and lakes. I wanted to work and live in national parks and forests. I wanted to feel the sun on my face, not artificial light. I wanted to climb and run instead of sit. I wanted to be with other people who felt the same tug to the wild.

And so I did. It's not that I didn't want it enough. More that I wanted to have it all. I didn't want to choose, didn't want to give up anything. I thought it would magically all fall into place: an outdoors job, marathon running, true love and books.

Of course it doesn't work that way. In order to be good at something, whether it's ultrarunning or mountain biking or writing, you have to put in the time. You have to give other things up.

As my songwriter friend Chase says, I guess this rock star dream's gone away. I'll pack up my guitar and sell my things. I watch Chase sing, his eyes closed, completely in the moment. I think, He's so talented. Why doesn't he go somewhere, really try to make it? But Chase is happy. He loves playing with his band and he loves being here.

I realize I am happy too. I don't need to be a Famous Writer anymore. I love my life. It's packed full of sparkly moments and love and sunshine. I wouldn't change a thing.

(Although I may start on Love in XtraTufs just for fun).

The romance writer at home with her family. This shack is unbelievably where she wrote the best-selling "Love in XtraTufs", a tale of Forest Service workers deep in the Alaskan rainforest. Is it a true story? Can love be found among the devils club? She isn't saying.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who notices a swamper?

The sawyers get all the glory. They strut along with a 24 pound chainsaw over their shoulder, chaps on their legs, chips flying as they cut. Who notices a swamper? There you are, scurrying along hefting a 21 pound dolmar sloshing with gas and oil in one hand, a pulaski in the other, a handsaw shoved into your pack. You are the one who picks up the rounds and heaves them into the brush. The one who watches for barber chairs or trees twisting uncertainly in the wind. The one who is bent over clearing the trail of branches.

Who notices a swamper? You are the clean-up crew, not the one admired for the perfect row of holding wood, the clean cut of the saw. You are the satellite, the moon around a planet.

I used to be a sawyer. I roamed the Florida woods cutting down fire-roasted trees and upstart invasives, just me and a saw. But like a lot of things I've left behind, cutting is one of them. It takes practice to keep a saw steady, to judge a lean, to not screw up. Mostly, I'm okay with swamping, if I don't think too hard about what I've lost.

John and I hurried up the Bearwallow trail, scorched in last year's fire gone bad. We had heard terrifying reports of winter-fallen trees, stacked like matchsticks, impossible, impassible. We carried wedges, a falling axe. We were prepared for battle.

Only.. a chainsaw vigilante had arrived before us. Disregarding the prohibition of chainsaws in wilderness, this person had marched right past the wilderness boundary at 3.5 miles and cut all the way to the Standley Cabin, 5 miles in. Here is not the place for a treatise on wilderness trails and chainsaws, I have heard all the arguments for and against. What was disturbing was the callous disregard for the boundary line. We had two trail crew people behind us armed with crosscuts and bowsaws, to do it right. Young guys who aren't afraid of work, who have learned the importance of a traditional tool and the pride in cutting something out by hand.

John and I stopped at the cabin, formerly a fire lookout's residence, to fill our water bottles from the spring. We returned to our cache of tools at the wilderness boundary. Just before it a tree leaned dangerously, flirting with the ground, a head-thumper. John took the pulaski and chopped it out by hand. Golden chips flew around. I grabbed sections of tree and pushed them off the trail. This, we thought, is how it's done. How it's been done for hundreds of years. Feeling the tree resist then crack under our tools.

Standley Cabin. Isn't it cute?
Who notices a swamper? Maybe nobody. Who cares if the trail has been cut out by hand or by machine? Maybe not the hikers, the trail runners, the horse people who only want to get somewhere and don't think about lifting a hand to help. Maybe nobody. But I do. I notice. I care.

Kinda pretty up here. Colorado-like.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A day on the pass photo essay

Here's the lower Bonny Lake. Pass is in the background.
There's not much I can say that is better than just showing where I was today. Though it was a sluggish start, I made it up to the pass in record time and was alone in the bright blaze of sun and wind.
The trail continues down into the East Fork of the Wallowa River. Those mountains are a chain that separate the two forks of the river.

Happiness is: no thunderstorms, wilderness and chocolate chip cookies.

I had to cross a snowfield. Katey, recognize these shoes?
A big open playground.

I passed a group of retired smokejumpers who were doing volunteer trail maintenance. Love them. And two backpackers. That was it. I'm afraid I'm becoming a hiking snob. Do I really want to hike the JMT with crowds?

Looking back down at the lakes.

This would be a great trail run. But today I wanted to move at a slower pace and take it all in. I'm becoming attached to these mountains, inseparable from the rivers. It's happening, finally. A piece of country is sinking into me and I into it. I finally know why people stay.

Friday, August 5, 2011

I'm (not) too old for this

Work. Hard work. Just you, a pulaski, an axe, or a crosscut saw, each swing thundering through your arms and down to your feet. Sweat dripping down your back and your three-day-old shirt. Waking up so stiff and sore you can't touch your toes and it takes a half hour of yoga to unbend the kinks so you can walk back up the hill to start again. Your hands, slowly uncurling from eleven hours of grasping a smooth handle, the dirt and rocks and roots, each one a blow, a victory, a challenge.

For years I lived this life, digging fireline, chopping out downfall from a trail with only a pulaski, swinging a swedish brush axe through palms, building a pole barn in the oven of a Florida summer, all in a series of short and sometimes brutal jobs where your value lay in how hard you could work.

Somehow I've gone away from that, turning to trail runs and long hikes instead. More days than I like, I sit in a cubicle. There's a big piece missing, the satisfaction of working hard, doing something most people couldn't, or wouldn't want to do.

I got to experience it again this week as I and four others dug a new water line for a historic set of ranch buildings on the Minam River. Ninety in the shade, 8-10 inches deep through swamp, tall grass, sod, rubbery roots, enormous rocks requiring a pickaxe. Hard work is humbling. You can think you are in the best hiking or running shape ever, but try something like this and you quickly learn how much more there is.

I often hear people say they are too old to do work like this. Let's be clear on one thing. The minute you start saying you are too old, you ARE too old. The people I was working with, three days in the hot sun? 35. 59. 59. 62. When we were done we packed up and hiked out, eight miles up from the valley floor. It took us three hours.  And I chased after more than one of the "old guys".

I liked going back to the world of real work. I'm not sure I want to live there all the time but I know I want to visit more often.

The tally:

Bee stings: three.
Hours digging: 25
Swims taken in river: four
Times I went for a trail run because I didn't get enough exercise at work: zero.